How baby Dave teaches empathy in Cork primary school

New school programmes nurture empathy, reduce aggression and help with anxiety

It's business as usual this school-day morning as Dave O'Donovan arrives in the classroom to meet his pals – except for one small thing: baby Dave, as he's affectionately known in Scoil na mBuachaillí in Clonakilty, is just six months old.

His friends, third and fourth class pupils, are eight and nine years of age.

When Dave’s buggy, pushed by his mother Lisa Crowley, enters the room, 30 boys sitting cross-legged on the floor around a large green mat, stand up to greet him with a special welcome song.

As Crowley carries Dave around the line of boys, several reach out to affectionately tug the smiling baby’s toe or pat his hand. Then his mum gently places him on the green mat and the half-hour session begins.


This is baby Dave's fourth visit to the west Cork school since the new term began last September. The visits are part of a Canadian programme, Roots of Empathy, which, according to international research, increases children's empathy and their social and emotional competence and significantly reduces levels of aggression.

The programme, whose delivery in Ireland is being managed by Barnardos – it comes free to the school – sets out to address the feelings and emotions elements of the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum.

In the Roots of Empathy programme, which can be taught from junior infants to sixth class, a baby and parent – in this case Dave and Lisa – visit the classroom every three weeks throughout the school year. In Scoil na mBuachaillí, teacher Elaine Connolly, who has trained in the programme, works with the pupils before and after each visit to prepare and reinforce the teachings. She coaches the children to observe the baby's development and label his feelings during the visit, which she also facilitates.

In effect, Connolly explains, the baby is the teacher while her role is to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others.

“The essence of it is that through observing the baby and the connection it has with its mother, the students can understand themselves more,” Elaine explains. “It’s about how every baby is different; how they have their own timeline for growing.

“It helps the boys to see that everyone is different and that everyone has a different traits and temperament. The baby makes nine visits to the class over the school year. In between, we study different themes; for example we look at the kind of temperament the baby has. Is he a very active engaged baby or quieter and more docile?

“It’s about developing emotional literacy and giving children the language around their emotions and understanding who they are as people. The programme brings up issues that may be occurring in the boys’ own lives – we’ve talked about how some children love sleepovers, but how other children are anxious about them, for example.

“I think they’re really enjoying it. They’re very engaged. It gives them insight into their own behaviour and into how everyone manages things differently. I think it’s improving their sense of empathy. It’s very good for teaching the boys to be more empathetic towards a classmate who might be anxious about something.”

Nine-year-old Tom Whooley loves it when Dave arrives: "It's really nice to see how much bigger he's getting, and when you see his feelings it makes you think about your own feelings."

Classmate Ethan O’Donovan (8) chimes in: “When baby Dave’s happy it makes me happy as well.”

Mum Lisa, a solicitor who lives in Clonakilty, was on maternity leave when the programme began: “I thought it was a lovely idea,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing to be involved in. The boys are always delighted to see us. I can tell they really look forward to it and they’re very interested; they ask things like has he started to laugh yet, and they can describe emotions by looking at Dave’s face.

“Over our visits I’ve seen them become more confident. They seem to be more willing to speak up and they want to say their thoughts; they want to be heard. I think it makes them more aware of other people and more conscious of other people’s feelings because they’re learning to recognise cues.”

Counteract anxiety

Connolly also teaches another in-school programme, Friends For Life, which is free apart from the €15 cost of the accompanying textbook. Its aim is to provide pupils with friends (tools) to counteract anxiety. “Life situations can be quite stressful for some children,” she says. “There’s a lot of go-go-go in terms of afterschool activities with very little time to rest because some parents want to do the best for their children and can end up enrolling them in a lot of activities,” says Connolly, who adds that some children can feel pressurised by the avalanche of activities.

“Also family life can be more complicated than it might have been a few decades ago, with some parents in second relationships and children going from one house to another. The programme talks about ways to alleviate feelings of anxiety about something like a spelling test or a match and looks at what we can do to help these feelings.”

The anxiety being experienced by schoolchildren became a concern for Emmanuel Bourke around the time of his appointment in 2016 as principal at St John Bosco Senior Boys' School on Dublin's Navan Road.

At the time, he recalls, while holding routine meetings with parents, he started to notice a common thread running through the conversations: “A lot of parents were concerned that their child was anxious before school, about school and after school. It took me by surprise as I didn’t know it was so widespread.”

So when Bourke heard about schoolteacher Niamh Brennan’s Wellbeing Warriors programme, he was immediately interested. Brennan, a teacher at St John Bosco, had previously worked as a teacher in the UK for several years in a learning support role.

Her job, she explains, required her to work closely with children who had experienced significant adversity and transience in their lives. Interested in behavioural psychology, Brennan had studied Neuro Linguistic Programming and noticed a connection between a child’s happiness and confidence and his openness to learning.

While in the UK Brennan developed a programme for improving children’s resilience and their emotional literacy and enabling them to talk about their feelings.

After returning to Ireland, and beginning work at St John Bosco, she set up an after-school club, the Wellbeing Warriors, based around this programme. Since then this six-week, optional programme, which costs €40 for each child, has run on a regular basis with pupils at all levels.

It focuses on nurturing children’s self-awareness, their self-confidence and their ability to express themselves freely:

“We also do a lot of work around stepping into other peoples’ shoes which is essentially a way of thinking from the perspective of someone else,” explains Brennan, who says she finds Wellbeing Warriors improves pupils’ levels of empathy and also helps with conflict resolution.

Twelve-year-old pupil Max Donovan found it helpful: "I liked it because if you weren't having a good day and you went to the club it made you feel better," he says. "At the start of the year I was getting into a few fights but I haven't got into any fights since. I'm able to think things through better now if someone is arguing with me. I think about other people more."

Clubmates Eanna Delaney (11) and Tarik Militti (12) also found the Wellbeing Warriors beneficial: "I like the way you can express your feelings without being embarrassed," explains Delaney. "I'm better at talking about my feelings now. Also I'm not in a bad mood if something goes wrong because I'm able to talk about it."

Adds Militti : “It made me feel amazing. I was a bit worried about going to secondary school and we talked about it and it made me feel more confident. I didn’t talk much about my feelings before Wellbeing Warriors.”

Children are generally happier in class after attending the programme, Brennan observes. “They express themselves with more confidence, and are more able to express themselves both to an adult and to their peers.

"The boys seem to develop empathy through talking to each other and doing listening activities and they develop good skills," says Brennan who now runs Wellbeing Warriors training courses at the Dublin West Education Centre for other teachers. To date she has trained some 50 teachers in 10 schools in Dublin and Kildare, including St John Bosco.

Concludes Bourke: “I’ve seen children who I’d know are quite reserved and they’re having conversations with you about how they’re feeling and what sort of day they’re having.”

He has also, he says, noticed increased willingness in senior pupils who have attended the club, to mentor young boys in the yard and volunteer with the school first-aid station.

Tips for helping children with anxiety

Anxiety is a significant issue for children at both primary and second-level education, says psychotherapist and author Carina McEvoy who specialises in counselling around anxiety for children and has written two handbooks on children and anxiety, one each for parents and children:

“Life has changed hugely. Children are very busy at school, and at afterschool clubs. Many have a hectic schedule and very little time to sit down and take a breath.

“Alongside this is the often constant stimulation of screens – children are on tablets, TV and playing computer games. There seems to be no time for their brain to wind down.”

The immediacy of modern life can also mean children can get anxious if they have to wait and have a low tolerance for boredom.

Yet McEvoy says, boredom is very good for children because it stimulates their imagination:

“If a child is constantly on a screen, such as a phone or tablet, and it’s taken away, they don’t know what to do,” she says, adding that another issue is the increasing lack of communication around children because adults are busy on their own devices.

“They have become unused to regular social interaction. If you go into a coffee shop and look around, you’ll see all the children are on tech devices. They’re not sitting up and looking around and talking to their parents and learning these social skills”

Sometimes I worry ... how about you? and Sometimes my child worries ... what do I do? by Carina McEvoy are available from Amazon; Chapters Bookstore Parnell St Dublin; and Byrne's Book & Toys, Gorey, Enniscorthy, Wexford.

Tips for counteracting a child's anxiety
– Create a healthy balance in the home between time spent on devices and other play activities.
– Actively listen to a child when he or she is speaking.
– Practise empathy towards the child and his or her anxiety: "If a child expresses anxiety let him or her know how you feel, and explain it's normal to feel anxious about things."
– Have a strategy. Teach the child to take deep breaths from the belly. "When we're anxious we breathe into the chest which means we are not getting the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This puts our body under stress. When we breathe from the belly we take in the oxygen our body needs and it de-stresses us."
– Help the child find a solution to the root of a worry, rather than just telling them not to worry. "If they fear getting lost in a shopping centre, say 'okay what can you do if you get lost?' Talk through the worst-case scenario. Ask what would happen – let them play it out to the end."